thinkiesandthoughtiesQuestion 15: If you could obtain anything you wanted, “would you be willing to tear the wings off a beautiful butterfly? If so, would you be troubled enough to enjoy [whatever it is you obtained] any less? What about stepping on a cockroach?

“Does a beautiful creature merit more compassion than an ugly one? If so, why? Do you injure yourself psychologically by destroying something you find beautiful? Is there a meaningful difference between pulling the wings off an insect and stepping on it? How much would it take to induce you to rip the wings off a hummingbird or dove?”

Many of us enjoy beauty, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to determine if we kill or don’t kill. For example, most of us aren’t opposed to killing a majestic elk for food – or eating the flesh of one we didn’t kill ourselves. On the other hand, even though the Panda is a stupid creature, we value it because it’s exotic. I think beauty holds some weight, but I’m not convinced it’s enough.

Instead, let’s talk about the new Superman movie (Man of Steel). I think that – regardless of what my friends say – the Jonathan Kent death-scene is a fantastic portrayal of a human’s powerful but limited value in non-human creatures. From what I’ve seen, the amount of value we have for other creatures depends on how similar or dissimilar our consciousness is to that creature (or how much a non-human creature reminds us of ourselves).

In the Jonathan Kent death-scene, a tornado threatens to abolish a line of occupied cars along a highway. Although everyone flees to a relatively safe spot, the family dog is locked inside a truck and in the line of fire. Jonathan, who is helping other families get out of their vehicles and to safety, eventually abandons his human cohorts in order to rescue the dog. Kal-El takes a few steps forward, preparing to risk his safety to rescue his adoptive parent, but Jonathan silently tells him to remain where he is. Jonathan succeeds in saving the dog and his family, but is killed in the process.

My friends find this scene heroic and beautiful. They say, “A human being [identified as superior] is compassionate enough to sacrifice his own life for that of another being [identified as less superior].” I believe there is truth in this sentiment, but I also think the scene reveals just how far our loyalty stretches for those that are alike us. There is a reason the dog is along for the ride in the first place; he is an important member of the family, and, according to this scene, just as important as a human.

However, I would like to argue that Jonathan saves Kal-El’s life out of love and duty, and perhaps, even, his potential for the greater good due to his advanced level of consciousness.

When I think about the Jonathan Kent death-scene, I feel that companionship plays a heavy role in our choices to protect or kill. Many non-human creatures seek companionship, but they do so because of biology and instinct. To seek something is one thing; to value something requires something unique — a highly advanced brain that gives your body the ability to extensively know itself while acknowledging others as individuals. Our value for companionship is a result of our consciousness.

Our bond to a cockroach is not as strong as our bond to a dog. Would Jonathan have risked his own life for a pet flea? Maybe so, but I don’t think most of us would. On a more serious note, maybe this is why we can’t collectively figure out when/if abortions are ethical. Do we value a fetus when it’s more similar to a fingernail than to us? Do we value it a little more when it’s similar to a dog? Do we highly value it once it’s born; more once it’s an infant; possibly more once it reaches a higher conscious, like us? We value a cockroach with little consciousness less than we value a human with a high consciousness, and we tend to believe terminating a fetus is more humane than murdering a newborn baby.

I would love to fully embrace the philosophy that all creatures should be equally valued and taken care of, but I don’t. I would even like to claim that, only in the most desperate of situations, could I kill another creature. But it’s not true. Could I tear the wings off a butterfly if it meant I got something I wanted: yes. When I was younger, I did it out of curiosity. Could I step on a cockroach? You bet. I’d do it for free. Could I pursue and kill another human if that person tortured someone I love? I bet I could.

None of this implies we can’t act differently. If morality is really a human construct, we can wield it. We can make it better. We can realize that the only reason we risk our lives for a “lesser-conscious being” (usually a dog; usually never a cockroach) is because the dog is usually considered one of us. An ameba is rarely ever considered one of us. A fetus is sometimes considered one of us. A baby, mostly always.

Everyone draws their line somewhere. For me, I realize where my value lays, and now it’s time to make a choice.

View Jennifer’s answer to Question 14

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Thinkies & Thoughties is inspired by The Book of Questions by Doctor Gregory Stock. Grab a cup of coffee — or something a little stronger — and sit down, open up, and share yourself every Friday.

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6 thoughts on “THINKIES & THOUGHTIES: Question 15

  1. This one’s easy. NO!! I can’t even kill a spider or fly in my house. I lived in Indonesia for 5 years and Hawaii for 12 and NEVER killed a cockroach and I won’t even touch a butterfly because I was told as a child that if you touched the wings they would no longer be able to fly.

  2. Yes, I would kill a cockroach or rip the wings off a butterfly, though I’d feel better about it if I could end its suffering afterward. However, if these examples are meant to be more metaphorical, I don’t believe I could. I couldn’t cripple a runner’s legs or destroy a beautiful face. Well, at least not unless I felt confident that what I wanted would more than make it up to them.

    Idealistically, I see why I should treat them as equal sacrifices, but that’s just not how it feels. I’d kill a million cockroaches before I chose to harm a human being. Likewise, I believe an altruistic want is worth far more than one insect’s life. What would tear me up would be perceived self-awareness or suffering of another being, not beauty. A lesser factor might be the level of justice/injustice involved.

    When considering creatures other than insects or humans, these ideas would be weighed against how much good my want would do for the world around me. Selfish benefit would have no value, while the suffering of others would hold far more weight than reason would suggest.

    (I believe I hit the major points, but lemme know if I missed any. There were a lot of parts to this one!)

    1. Justin, thank you for taking the time to answer — your response is honest and moving. Also, we touch upon similar themes this week.

      I, too, feel I would witness a greater loss from harming a human as opposed to non-human creatures. In fact, I know I have the potential to harm insects without good reason — harming a human without good reason, not so much. I explain why in my response this week.

      I used to believe that the “greater good” justified the means. I don’t believe that anymore, and feel that causing an insect to suffer ultimately taints the means, and if the means are tainted, the outcome/whole will be too. However, insects can’t actually suffer, and because they can’t suffer, the only difference between ripping the wings off a creature and stepping on it is the difference the person creates in their own mind. If a person kills without reason, or kills out of revenge, or spite, or whatever, these reasons manifest inside the conscious person. Your intent determines how little or how much you injure yourself psychologically. (This is NOT to say insects can’t experience pain, so if pain is important, it’s something to consider).

      If we take into account animals other than insects and humans, their potential for suffering increases, but according to past research, they are still unable to suffer. On the other hand, neither are human infants. You may remember an article I wrote called “Life: A Definition” from our days at The Commuter that explains why:

      “The Ecological Self and Interpersonal Self develop dramatically over the first year of life, the Extended Self somewhere between 2 and 3 years, the Private Self after 4 years, and Conceptual Self 5+ years. The point to take away from this is that young infants are incapable of suffering. Experiencing pain and experiencing suffering are two very different things. The youngest infants, along with animals, can undoubtedly experience pain, however both cannot suffer. Suffering is an emotional and cognitive response to physical pain, threat of future pain, and past experiences that can only arise from an advanced development of the self. Without an extended self, past and future experience have no bearing on one’s life, because there are no past and future experiences to grasp.”

      If you draw the line at causing something to suffer, do you think you could rip the limbs off a baby or stomp one to death if it meant gaining a “greater good?” In fact, I believe this is a future Thinkies & Thoughties question!

  3. Yes, I would rip off a butterfly’s wings or step on a cockroach to obtain anything I wanted. Especially if what I wanted was a pretty pair of butterfly wings. If we’re being metaphorical, I’m not sure where I’d draw the line. I don’t think I could rip the arms off a person (figuratively or physically), but then again it might depend on the person. (Sometimes your questions confirm my suspesions that I really am a terrible person.)

    There may not be a meaning difference between pulling off the wings or stepping on an insect, but there is a psychological one. It takes a much more conscious effort to pull the wings off that to step on a bug. I mean, I was walking that direction anyway. You can’t accidently catch a butterfly and rip the wings off.

    I wouldn’t WANT to intentionally cause pain or suffering for someone/thing else (I’d rather cause my own, especially if I’m the sole beneficiary of the reward), but could depending on the ends. The ends don’t excuse the means, but they can justify them.

    It’s hard to postulate in hypotheticals here. I think in my head I’m a far more selfish person than I would be in the actual situation.

  4. Ashley, I love your response. Thank you for going into depth with it.

    The first two lines of your response made me laugh out loud — it’s cruel, yet so witty! I think you are absolutely right to say there is a psychological difference between choosing to pull of the wings of a bug and automatically stepping on one. There is a biological drive to be cleanly, which drives us to kill insects. Like you said: it’s no accident when you catch a butterfly and rip off its wings; it takes much more effort and willpower to remove the limbs of a creature.

    Again, I don’t think these questions have as much to do with beauty as they do with companionship (which I’ll touch upon in my response). In fact, I think it’s noble that you are more willing to harm yourself rather than someone else in order to gain what you want (I would prefer you didn’t harm yourself at all, of course), but many people are willing to harm themselves and others, and some are only willing to harm others. I think I’m willing to harm both, which is disappointing.

    For me, I don’t think causing harm (to oneself or others or both) can really ever justify the ends. I’ve experienced too many great endings that began with rotten means, and those means found their way into my ends eventually (excuse the weird language…) I guess, even when I thought I was sacrificing in order to achieve something greater later on, my intentions weren’t right.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I always look forward to them.

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